Honey, We’ve Shrunk the Gospel

Last week I was having lunch at Chipotle in Kansas City with my good friend Mike Crawford. As I’m finishing my burrito, a lady walks by and places two gospel tracts on our table. The restaurant was packed, but we were the only ones who got tractified (guess we looked like two dudes who needed the gospel). I would have said hello or asked her name, but she didn’t give me the chance. As soon as she put the tracts down she hurried out the door without saying a word or looking at us.

The irony is that just a day earlier I had preached a sermon at Jacob’s Well which included a discussion about gospel tracts (it can be heard here).

Now I don’t have a problem with this lady’s boldness about her convictions. We live in a pluralistic society where everyone from professors and politicians to advertisers and Apple try to persuade others that they know what’s best for the world. There’s nothing wrong with Christians sharing with others what they believe is public truth (the gospel). Nor do I have a problem with this lady giving us tracts – though I question what such “hit and run” evangelism techniques really communicate to those outside of the faith. What I do have a problem with, however, is the content of the tracts.

On the front it reads, “How to Get to Heaven From Kansas.” Here are the opening lines: “More important than living in Kansas is where you will live forever. Jesus is the only way to heaven and he gave these directions on how to get there.”

It then walks through the steps that need to be taken for someone to ensure they will go to Heaven rather than Hell. One must confess to be a sinner and ask Jesus for forgiveness. The tract ends with a prayer next to these words: “In order to go to Heaven from Kansas, you must accept Christ by calling on Him in prayer.”

According to this tract, the gospel is mainly about going to heaven when you die. I can’t help but wonder, what would Jesus think about our tracts? (Don’t worry, I won’t be making WWJTAOT bracelets). Jesus talked about heaven, but by no means was it his central message. He talked a whole lot more about the kingdom of God.

The Burning Message of Christ’s Life

Matthew writes that Jesus began his ministry by going throughout Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom (4:23). In Mark, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are “The kingdom of God is at hand – repent and believe the gospel” (1:15). Luke quotes Jesus at the start of his work saying, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…it is for this reason that I was sent” (4:43).

The “kingdom of God” occurs 122 times in the gospel stories. It was code language for God’s redemption project that began all the way back with the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12. Jesus was announcing the good news that God was finally putting the world back to rights and fulfilling his promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s seed. This was the burning message of Jesus’ life, from start to finish.

Now back to heaven. Jews understood heaven as God’s pad. It’s the place within, not outside of, creation where God resides and is in control. And Jesus believed his followers would be safe with God in heaven after they died – in other words, they were secure in God’s love even after this life. But when he talked about heaven, it wasn’t in order to get people excited about going somewhere else when they died, but rather to describe the sort of reality God wants to create on earth now.

For example, look at the Lord’s prayer. When Jesus tells his followers to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” he’s telling them to pray and long for heaven to become a very solid, tangible, visible reality on earth. The great end toward which God is moving history is not a distant, airy heaven far removed from the suffering world, but a world that’s healed and transformed in such a way that it resembles heaven.

That’s the picture the Bible closes with. In Revelation 21, John gives us a beautiful vision of what’s in store for us and the world. We don’t go off to heaven; heaven comes to us. It’s as if heaven comes crashing into the earth – but John’s language is much more gentle and poetic. He describes a renewed and redeemed world where heaven and earth overlap and spill onto one another, for in the end God shall unite the two in marriage.

John’s vision is, in Cornelius Plantinga’s words, “lovely enough to break a person’s heart.” The city of God descends to us as God takes up full residence on the earth and heals his broken creation. This is what the church looks forward to every time she utters the twin prayers “thy kingdom come” and “come, Lord Jesus, come.”

This brings me back to the tract the lady gave me at Chipotle. When did we shrink the gospel? How did Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom and John’s vision of a renewed world get whittled down to a message about heaven and being rescued from the world?

Rapture and Retreat From the World

In my sermon at Jacob’s Well I gave a little history lesson to help explain where some of this escapist theology came from. I won’t repeat it here, but I do want to say a word about the doctrine known as “the rapture.” Well, I guess it’s two words: modern invention.

The word rapture doesn’t appear in scripture. It was created by an amateur theologian in Britain named John Darby in the 1830s. He’s also the father of Dispensationalism (you’re not the only one who can’t pronounce that). Even if you don’t know this word, you know its theology. It was popularized by a set of Christian sci-fi novels called the Left Behind series, and before that, the Scofield Reference Bible.

Basically this teaches that the world is going to get darker and darker until God finally destroys it. But Christians will be saved just in the nick of time – they’ll be ejected from the earth and will be in heaven away from all the suffering. I said earlier that the word rapture doesn’t appear in scripture, but there are a few passages that seem to support it. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 is the most commonly cited:

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.”

Paul is actually playing with a metaphor that all of his readers would have known. When the emperor would visit a city, its citizens would go out to meet him before he arrived so that they could escort him to the city. Paul interjects a political sting and critique to this metaphor by saying that when Christ the true Lord returns, those Christians who are living and those who are dead will go out to meet the Lord – they’ll be caught up with him in the air – to give him a royal escort back to his domain, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

But Darbyites say that Jesus never really touches down on earth at his second coming, but only comes to rescue Christians out of the world. It’s no wonder we’ve shrunk the gospel – if God is not concerned about the world, and human beings cannot make it a better place, then all we have to hope for is escaping it one day.

Time for a confession. In high school I not only read the first volume of Left Behind, I thought it should be included at the end of Revelation since it explained everything so much more clearly. I saw the world as a sinking ship and the gospel as a lifeboat to save people from the coming destruction. And yes, I even remember handing out gospel tracts not all that different from the one I received in Chipotle.

But things began to change in college as I wrestled with what exactly the good news of the gospel is all about. At the time I was working with teenagers in the inner city where hard drugs, failing schools, and gang violence were everyday experiences. The more I studied scripture – and in particular the stories of Jesus – the more I saw that God’s healing and saving purposes were much bigger than I had originally thought. I had the growing conviction that God wants to not only transform people’s lives, but transform the social structures and cities they live in.

Through this long journey I’ve begun to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God. The great hope of Christianity is not that we get to escape all the suffering of the world, but that God is going to use us to be a part of his healing project. God is putting the world back to rights, and part of that involves putting us individually back together so that we can join him in this redemption project.

And since God is redeeming this world, rather than abandoning it, all the work we do now in the name of Christ on this earth will be preserved into the next life. All of it counts and lasts, none of it is wasted or lost. That’s why at the end of his long discourse on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul can write, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (v. 58).

There’s nothing more urgent for the church than relearning the good news of the kingdom of God. That’s a sweeping statement – but it’s one I believe is true. If we shrink the gospel and make it just a message about individuals going to heaven, then the church can’t help but become a sanctuary and hiding place from the world. But heaven is not an escape from the earth; it is its goal.

In a world devastated by both natural causes (earthquakes and tsunamis) and human causes (oil spills and Wall Street corruption), we need to be a people who proclaim both in word and deed that God hasn’t given up on his creation but is at work healing it.

Time For New Tracts

So maybe it’s time we make some new gospel tracts. I was with the Irish theologian/philosopher Peter Rollins a couple of months ago and he gave me a tract he had written. I’ve put most of it below. As you read it you’ll probably think you know where it’s headed. That’s why the last scenes might surprise you a bit.

God has given us a glimpse of the future, and it is this vision of what is to come that energizes us to keep believing, praying, and serving even when it appears that all the lights have gone out. We’ve seen that history has a happy ending, and we know that God is faithful to complete what he has begun.

I think we’ve shrunk the gospel. We’ve reduced it to just being about personal salvation. And reductionism always leads to distortion.

Hopefully there are more artists and writers out there that can help us create new tracts and fresh ways to communicate the good news of the kingdom of God. (And perhaps we should make it a rule that you can only give a tract to someone once you’ve learned their name.)